Top 5 Tips for Young Engineers

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Fresh from receiving the American Water Works Association’s Top 5 Under 35 Outstanding Young Professionals Award, Tom Woodcock – RVA’s Lead I&C Engineer and Board Director of the Ontario Water Works Association – gives his recap of year’s ACE22 event in San Antonio, Texas, and offers advice to young engineers who dream of what they can do, and where they can go next, in their careers.

This past June, I had the opportunity to attend AWWA’s ACE22 event in San Antonio, Texas, and it was an amazing experience that I will not soon forget: from receiving one of the 5 Under 35 Outstanding Young Professional Awards from AWWA President, Chi Ho Sham, and Incoming President, Joe Jacangelo, at the Awards reception; to hearing about the discovery of water on Mars from NASA scientist, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen; and witnessing the launch of AWWA’s “Water 2050” initiative, which will envision the future of water and chart a course for sustainability and success. I also attended the AWWA Young Professionals (YP) Committee’s in-person meeting to close the conference and was filled with joy to see and feel the positive energy of the next generation of water stewards.

It was also a chance for me to look back on my career, and what advice from it that I could pass on to other young professionals in the industry. So, here’s a little bit of where I came from and the lessons that I can give to engineers who are just getting started.

Greenway Wastewater Treatment Plant Dewatering Upgrades

When I started at RVA as an Engineer-in-Training (EIT), one of my first major assignments was an $11 million dewatering upgrades project at the Greenway Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) in my hometown of London, Ontario. This project would become my baby for the next four years. During the design phase, I was heavily involved in the process and I&C design, as well as co-ordinating the work of other disciplines. When the project reached the construction phase, I took on the roles of Site Inspector and Contract Administrator and relocated from the RVA office to the Greenway WWTP.

The next year-and-a-half onsite would become one of the biggest challenges I faced. I encountered situations you can’t fully prepare for until you’ve lived through them. I dealt with the big challenges, like concerns over working conditions and contractual work agreements, and I managed the everyday ones too: valves opening up when they shouldn’t have; negotiating with contractors; even heated moments between plant operators, contractor personnel, and site supervisors. Every day brought something new, good and bad. When an obstacle came up, I would at times get hyper-focused and develop a myopic view. There were moments when I found myself asking: What am I doing here? What is going on?

Those experiences are what I cut my professional teeth on. As my mentor, Dave Evans, reminded me, there is no one better qualified to do site inspection than the designer, because they’re the ones who know the finer details that make the overall system work. I had been working on this project from day one, and having dealt with all those challenges during construction meant that I knew exactly what to do to make commissioning smoother than anyone could have anticipated. What would’ve normally taken several months, our commissioning team accomplished in one week. On the first day of full system operation, we had the dewatered cake from the new centrifuges up to 30% total solids and the incineration process had become fully autogenous. The feeling I got during commissioning was like a runner’s high, because I realized that the work we had just accomplished was helping everybody in the community, and one that I called home.

Tips for young engineers – and any young professional

The work we do as engineers is important: the stakes are high, and that means tensions can run high too. But part of our job as engineers is to understand the needs, experiences, and personalities of people who are different from us. Twelve years and many projects later, I’ve learned that once you separate yourself from the work, you realize that the issues that come up aren’t personal, but simply the nature of the business.

Becoming capable of handling complex projects and diverse stakeholders has been one of the most rewarding parts of my profession – but this takes effort and constant learning. So here are five tips that have helped me become the engineer and water professional I am today.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is one you hear a lot, because it’s true. As our CEO, Shawn, likes to say to our newcomers, the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked. As a graduate who’s new to the workforce, people understand that it will take time for you to get up to speed. When someone explains something to you, it’s always a good idea to say, “Can I confirm my understanding?” and repeat it back to them. It’s okay to have no idea what people are talking about, whether it’s a Class EA amendment or technical jargon – the important thing is that you don’t suffer in silence. Be totally upfront and honest.
  • Get involved. Especially when you are new to a company, social activities are the best way to learn about the culture, meet people across the company you otherwise wouldn’t, and get to know your teammates better. I’ve always found that teams that spend time together generally perform better. This goes for professional associations too. What I’ve found with professional associations is that I always get back tenfold of what I put into it. For example, I learned event planning just from organizing YP events – which came especially handy when planning my wedding! And in engineering, part of your duty is to pay it forward. When I attended the Ontario Water Conference this past May, I saw professional speakers who I met for the first time as students at OWWA events. The feeling you get from helping others, and watching each other grow, is a unique experience you won’t get anywhere else unless you make the effort to get involved.
  • Always be networking. The water industry is a small one, and eventually you’re going to bump into people you’ve worked with before. Your teammate could be your client one day. Knowing this, it’s important to develop your own personal network of colleagues that you can call on when you need help. I once had a treatment problem on a project, and all I had to do was send a few emails out to people I’d worked with before in the industry, and through them I was able to connect with experts who had done the exact type of process change we were struggling with. Remember: the industry as a whole wants you to succeed. As water and wastewater professionals, we all have skin in the game because society, as a whole, needs talented engineers like you to thrive.
  • Request opportunities to work onsite. I always recommend that any EIT gain onsite experience before they get their P.Eng. licence, because the site is where you really learn how things get built: how to pull electrical wiring through conduit, put up formwork and rebar, see how different pipes and couplings go together. And it’s where you get to develop strong people skills and learn how to talk to people and companies who are very different from you. Anyone can put lines on paper, but that’s not all there is to engineering. Understanding the whole package of design, relationship building, and constructability is what makes you a well-rounded engineer.
  • Develop a work-life balance that works for you. If you’re a new grad out of school, you might feel like you have more time to dedicate to your job, that you want more responsibilities. But early on, it’s important for you (and your boss) to understand how much you can take on. Being cognizant of mental health, and acknowledging that it’s okay not to be okay, is more of a focus now than when I started in the industry, and many of the conversations I have with my teams on a day-to-day basis is simply asking how they are doing. Engineers deal with high-stress situations, and if you don’t learn how to say no to some things, you’re going to burn out. So, if there is a week when family time is more important, take it; and when you are off the clock, really be off the clock. Find the things that restore you – for me, it’s playing guitar, hockey, and golf – and you will come back more focused to work. That project will still be there next week, so don’t be afraid to set your boundaries and communicate them.

Looking ahead

During one of my first YP Summits, a counselor once asked the group: how many jobs does the water industry support in our town? The answer was 100%, because without water and wastewater, our society wouldn’t exist.

As engineers, we get to come to work every day and solve complex issues for the communities we serve. With the effects of climate change, we’re on the cusp of a great social shift in the next 50 years, and we need adequate facilities and infrastructure to accommodate that.

This next generation is the make-or-break generation, and it’s scary, but exciting at the same time. We get to put on our Captain Planet suit now.

What I’m seeing in young professionals today that really sets them apart is a willingness to think outside the box. There’s a fine line between challenging old ways and learning from it, but young engineers have an appetite for innovation that allows them to find new ways of looking at old problems. Being able to work with young professionals, and guide them along their journeys like my mentors have done for me, has been and will continue to be one of the most rewarding parts of my career. That’s what excites me, and gives me hope, about the future: seeing what our young engineers of today will bring to solve the challenges of tomorrow.